The best thing to do in Dunstable, I can confirm, is to go up on the Downs. Here are nine lesser attractions. [plus photos]
Dunstable is essentially a crossroads that got lucky. It lies at the intersection of two of the (few) important roads in medieval Britain - Watling Street and the Icknield Way - and sprang to national prominence when King Henry I took an interest. In 1107 he set up a trading post here, hoping to make long-distance travel safer, and followed this up in 1131 by establishing a Priory. The next four centuries were kind to Dunstable, which grew in importance until the priory was shut down and, eventually, Luton overtook it. Watling Street is now the A5183 in these parts, a deliberate downgrade since the A5 bypass opened, but the crossroads is still very much in place. Dunstafact: Henry I spent Christmas 1131 in Dunstable.
Twelve Eleanor crosses marked the points where the body of Edward I's dead wife rested overnight on her final journey from Nottinghamshire to London. Dunstable was stop number 8, between Woburn and St Albans, with the queen's bier placed first in the marketplace and then overnight in the priory. The commemorative cross, alas, was destroyed by Parliamentarians during the Civil War, so the town has to make do with a plaque on a wall of the Nat West facing the crossroads. In 1985 the council named a new shopping centre after Queen Eleanor and placed a sculpture of her at its heart, although this jumped-up alleyway of studios and salons now has pretty much zero footfall so Eleanor must be very cross indeed. Dunstafact: Only three original Eleanor Crosses survive, at Geddington, Hardingstone and Waltham Cross.
Dunstable Priory was so important that in May 1533 Henry VIII convened a court here to rule on the validity of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer sat in judgement in the Lady Chapel and dutifully annulled Catherine's marriage, a foregone conclusion which set in train Henry's schism with the Roman Catholic Church and decades of religious strife. The Lady Chapel also no longer stands, but groundwork in 2005 confirmed its location and it's been delineated on the grass by a white rectangle. I stood within the empty boundary, beneath a purple-leaved field maple, and reflected on the doctrinal earthquake that spread out from this anonymous Dunstable lawn. Dunstafact: Catherine's ghost is said to haunt the path alongside the croquet lawn.
Almost no priories survived the Dissolution of the Monasteries, but Dunstable's nearly did, being Henry VIII's top choice to be elevated to a cathedral. But he failed to get his own way, so the entirety of the priory was knocked down apart from a gatehouse arch and the church, which survives as the parish church of St Peter's. It's one of England's finest examples of Norman architecture, the four-arched facade being an Early English upgrade, although at present it's half-shrouded in ugly scaffolding while urgent repairs are carried out to the tower. The 14th century rood screen is an interior highlight, but I spent most of my time admiring the kneelers. Dunstafact: Bullet holes from the Civil War can still be seen in the church's West Door.
Across Priory Gardens is Priory House, Dunstable's oldest irreligious building. The undercroft is 12th century, the building above it part-Tudor, and the whole thing used to be council offices until a more inclusive use was found. Downstairs now features a tearoom, whose drinks can be consumed in the undercroft if it's un-roped, plus the town's Tourist Information Centre, which seems to exist mainly to persuade Dunstable residents to be tourists elsewhere. Upstairs is the room you can get married in, plus a museum that's mostly printed boards around the walls. I had to move a row of chairs out of the way to read the Dunstable Priory bit. Dunstafact: Britain's last proper mêlée tournament was held in Dunstable in 1342.
But full credit to Dunstable Town Council for taking their local heritage impressively seriously. Historic buildings around the town all have plaques as and where necessary. The location of the town stocks is clearly marked, for example, along with useful supplementary data about whipping. Numerous information panels appear in relevant locations, really a lot more than you'd expect, each with comprehensive text and illustrations. Also the Tourist Information Centre has four, repeat four, free leaflets depicting trails around the town centre. The Coaching Inns describes pubs that mostly still survive, The Hat Walk shows where a dozen millinery factories used to be, but the best (and thickest) is Odd & Unusual Dunstable, because the place truly is. Dunstafact: Dunstable is thought to have had England's first town byelaws, one of which banned shopkeepers from keeping a pig.
Dunstable council's offices are in a former pub, although it hasn't been a pub since 1773, after which it became a family mansion called Grove House. The gardens out back are the town centre's second parkland space, again liberally scattered with panels which only out-of-towners stop to read. On the far side is Dunstable's pride and joy, the Grove Theatre, although brief perusal of its programme suggests a constant string of tribute acts. BBC Three Counties Radio is based in four year-old studios alongside, because Dunstable is the closest town to the point where Herts, Beds and Bucks meet. But this is also where the Wetherspoons is, named after local film star Gary Cooper, so it's not quite the cultured side of town. Dunstafact: Other famous Dunstablians include Kevin McCloud, Badly Drawn Boy and Faye Tozer from Steps.
I'm showing you the Costa Coffee in the Quadrant shopping centre for a reason. Costa's head office is in Dunstable, on the Woodside Industrial Estate near Houghton Regis, because so is Whitbread plc and they used to own Costa before Coca-Cola bought them out. Their central mall hangout is certainly a lot busier than Coffee Republic a few doors up, as if the town instinctively gravitates to its own. The shopping centre remains a bit lowbrow, anchored by a Poundland and a Bonmarché, but boasts some quintessential 1960s concrete art on the wall above Boots (and at least it's not Luton, omigod that place has changed). Dunstafact: Vauxhall built trucks in Dunstable until 1987.
Dunstable (pop 36000) is one of the largest towns in southern England without a railway station, because the branch lines to Leighton Buzzard and Welwyn closed to passenger traffic in 1965. The stretch between Dunstable and Luton reopened as a guidedbusway in 2013, with five miles of whizzy concrete track that provides an impressively quick connection. What did baffle me was that three different operators run seven different lettered services, scantly labelled, and Arriva will only give you a map with theirs on. Thankfully I'd bought a Plusbus ticket so wasn't unnecessarily constrained. Grant Palmer's C, with an almost empty upper deck, provided the most exhilarating Busway experience. Dunstafact: I travelled from St Pancras to Dunstable in under an hour, so that was easy.